Linebacker class lacks depth, overall quality

OWINGS MILLS - Linebackers are supposed to be mobile, agile and hostile. With the exception of a scant few tacklers who fit that bill, it's a position relatively bereft of talent for this weekend's NFL draft. There's such a dearth of qualified linebackers that franchises' decision-makers are more likely to demonstrate their own speed and hostility. As in, they'll be fast to skip over linebackers that don't meet their criteria.

Those executives and coaches might voice a few choice complaints while wondering: Where have all the linebackers gone?

Other than ultra-swift Georgia outside linebacker Boss Bailey and Maryland's Butkus Award winner, E.J. Henderson, this is a class that lacks much in the way of quality and candidates for the first round. It certainly doesn't include many individuals who will evoke comparisons to Ray Lewis, Dick Butkus or Lawrence Taylor.

"Obviously, there are not a lot of top linebackers this year," Ravens outside linebackers coach Phil Zacharias said. "There just aren't that many people for whatever reason that you would rate all that highly.

"It might be a situation where a lot of players who otherwise would be good linebacker prospects are playing with their hand down as defensive ends."

Only three linebackers have been selected in the first round over the last two drafts. The Washington Redskins' LaVar Arrington going second overall in 2000 or Brian Urlacher going ninth overall to Chicago that year seem like distant memories.

In terms of the Ravens' linebacker search, it's obviously far from a dire need because of the presence of Pro Bowlers in Lewis and Peter Boulware along with Edgerton Hartwell, Cornell Brown, Bernardo Harris and, possibly, free agent Jamir Miller if he agrees to terms.

Bailey's top attributes, besides being the younger brother of Washington Redskins cornerback Champ Bailey, are his 4.38 speed and a staggering 48-inch vertical leap.

The chief criticism he's been tagged with is a tendency to avoid blocks in a manner similar to a bullfighter.

Despite having torn his left and right anterior cruciate ligaments, Bailey has drawn enough comparisons to All-Pro Derrick Brooks to intrigue the St. Louis Rams at No. 12 overall. Last season, Bailey had 114 tackles, nine sacks, four interceptions and blocked three kicks.

"Boss is an excellent athlete," Zacharias said. "There aren't many players at any position who test out as well as he does. That helps, but it's not the entire equation."

Henderson will probably be the next linebacker taken after Bailey, possibly going as high as the New Orleans Saints (No. 17), the New England Patriots (No. 18) or the Cleveland Browns (No. 21).

Following Henderson and Bailey may mean a long wait for other linebacker hopefuls, a group that includes: Oregon State's Nick Barnett, Kansas State's Terry Pierce, Pitt's Gerald Hayes, West Texas A&M's Chaun Thompson, LSU's Bradie James, North Carolina State's Shawn Price and Florida's Mike Nattiel.

Several of these players are considered either too slow to pursue outside runs or operate adeptly in pass coverage. Many aren't hefty enough to take on blockers.

"I don't think there are very many guys who have the credentials of what we're looking for," Zacharias said. "We're looking for a guy who could be a piece of the puzzle."

Although he's listed as a defensive end, Cincinnati senior Antwan Peek (6-2, 250, 4.61 speed) might project well as an outside linebacker in the Ravens' 3-4 scheme.

Peek was recruited as a wide receiver and moved to defensive back before settling in as a down lineman for the Bearcats. He had six sacks last season, causing seven fumbles and recovering five while blocking several kicks in his career. Peek visited the Ravens' training complex along with Tennessee's Eddie Moore.

Even if the Ravens believed Bailey to worthy of their 10th overall pick, it's unlikely they would select him there. They wouldn't mind adding more depth, though.

 "At the right spot, we'll take a good player," Ravens director of player personnel Phil Savage said. "You can never have too many good players even if they are at the same position."

NOTE: The Ravens' Spring Football Festival will be held Saturday at Ravens Stadium between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. Several players, including Todd Heap, Edwin Mulitalo and Hartwell, are scheduled to attend along with cheerleaders and mascots. Besides locker room tours and television and radio coverage of the draft, the Baha Men are performing. For ticket information, call 410-261-7283.


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